The crazy-making in Christianity: Religion's cycle of self-doubt and self-punishment

Christians like to talk about the benefits of faith. But what if the exact opposite is true?

Published November 27, 2014 11:00PM (EST)

Pat Robertson                 (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
Pat Robertson (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Excerpted from "Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails"

I am thirty years old and I am struggling to find sanity. Between the Christian schools, homeschooling, the Christian group home (indoctrinating work camp), and different churches in different cities, I am a psychological, emotional, and spiritual mess.
—A former evangelical Christian

If a former believer says that Christianity made him depressed, obsessive, or post-traumatic, he is likely to be dismissed as an exaggerator. He might describe panic attacks about the rapture, moods that swing from ecstasy about God’s overwhelming love to suicidal self-loathing about repeated sins, or an obsession with sexual purity. A symptom like one of these clearly has a religious component, yet many people instinctively blame the victim. They will say that the wounded former believer was prone to anxiety or depression or obsession in the first place — that his Christianity somehow got corrupted by his predisposition to psychological problems. Or they will say that he wasn’t a real Christian. If only he had prayed in faith or loved God with all his heart, soul and mind, if only he had really been saved — then he would have experi­enced the peace that passes all understanding.

But the reality is far more complex. It is true that symptoms like depres­sion or panic attacks most often strike those of us who are vulnerable, perhaps because of genetics or perhaps because situational stressors have worn us down. But the reality is that Christian beliefs and Christian living can create those stressors, even setting up multigenerational patterns of abuse, trauma, and self-abuse. Also, over time some religious beliefs can create habitual thought patterns that actually alter brain function, making it difficult for people to heal or grow.

Christians like to talk about the benefits of faith. Testimonies are filled with miraculous transforma­tions: drug abusers go sober, compulsive gamblers break their addictions, guilty and lonely people feel flooded with forgiveness and love. So it is hard for many Christians to imagine that the opposite might also be true — that Christianity sometimes traps people in a cycle of self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-punishment that can drive vulnerable children and adults to mental illness or suicide. There are “crazy-making” aspects of this thought system that are quite serious.

The best research available, taken together, shows a modest positive corre­lation between religious involvement and mental health. That said, this research is correlational, with some studies showing positive associations, some showing negative associations, and some showing none at all. This is likely due to the wide variety of ways in which religious involvement and mental health are measured, but also to the enormous variations in religion itself.

While the born-again experience can provide dramatic and sometimes instantaneous relief from psychological symptoms or addiction, a similar transformation occurs in many religions and secular self-help intensives. Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman explore this process in their now classic book "Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change." In fact, people leaving a restrictive religion have described their experience in similar terms — a sudden flood of freedom, joy, and purpose. Some call their decon-version being “born again again.” Here is one of them:

Add me to the list of people whose depression and self-doubt and self-loathing and etc. etc. etc. all got better after the huge weight of religious oppression was lifted. I am now beginning to feel that “peace that passes all understanding” that Christians are always talking about (but never seem to find). Ironic – Xphish

It is common to consider religion a private affair. Yet beliefs are not merely personal when they motivate action that affects other individuals or public policy. Religious beliefs can compel good people to behave horribly — to shun friends, beat their children, or kill gays because in the mental universe created by belief those bad things are lesser evils. Most often though, the harm is psychological and the victims are the believers themselves.

The purveyors of religion insist that their product is so powerful it can transform a life, but somehow, magically, it has no risks. In reality, when a medicine is powerful, it usually has the potential to be toxic, especially in the wrong combination or at the wrong dose. And religion is powerful medicine!

In this chapter we will discuss why Christianity is so powerful and how it causes psychological harm — how it can stunt child development, why females are particularly at risk, what religious trauma looks like, and how former believers can reclaim their lives and health. For the purpose of this discussion we will focus on the variants of Christianity that are based on a literal interpre­tation of the Bible. These include evangelical and fundamentalist churches, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and other conservative sects. These groups share the characteristics of requiring conformity for membership, a view that humans need salvation, and a focus on the spiritual world as superior to the natural world. These views are in contrast to liberal, progressive Christian churches with a humanistic viewpoint, a focus on the present, and an interest in social justice.

It is important to understand that Christianity is not just a religion. It is a broad, encompassing lens through which believers experience the world. It also permeates Western civilization. As such, it can be as difficult to examine as the air we breathe, and it’s just as important. Christian assumptions based on symbols, laws, and nomenclature are so ubiquitous in our culture as to blind even many nonbelievers to the harm done in the name of God.

Religion Exploits Normal Human Mental Processes

To understand the power of religion, it is helpful to understand a bit about the structure of the human mind. Rationalism, a 350-year-old theory of mind, sees humans as rational beings, guided by conscious thought and intention. Find­ings in cognitive science say otherwise.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for his pio­neering work on decision making. At the time Kahneman began, scholars believed that human beings were “rational actors,” especially in the economic sphere, and that most of our own motives and beliefs were available to our conscious minds. Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky showed that this is far from true. Instead, as it turns out, much of our mental activity has little to do with rationality and is utterly inaccessible to the conscious mind.

The preferences, intentions, and decisions that shape our lives are in turn shaped by memories and associations that can be laid down before we even develop the capacity for rational analysis. Daniel Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA who researches and writes about trauma. He explains that we have both “explicit” and “implicit” memories stored in our brains, regardless of conscious awareness. The implicit memories go back to birth and include our attachment experience, which has a lifelong impact.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff is known for the concept of frames, popularized through a small book called "Don’t Think of an Elephant." “People use frames — deep-seated mental structures about how the world works — to understand facts. Frames are in our brains and define our common sense. It is impossible to think or communicate without activating frames, and which frame is activated is of crucial importance.”

Frames are acquired unconsciously and operate unconsciously, but they determine the shape of conscious thought. According to cognitive linguistics, words link to images, memories, and related concepts that are tangled together via neural networks. As a consequence we make sense of the world through metaphors that let us evaluate unfamiliar situations based on those that are more familiar. For example, when political conservatives and liberals envi­sion a healthy society they both use the family as a model for how govern­ment should work. But where conservatives try to replicate a “strict father” or authoritarian model, liberals incline toward a “nurturing parent” model. These “deep frames” lead to very different social priorities. An understanding of frames helps us understand why religious thinking can seem so alien to outsiders, for people with different deep frames think differently and reach different conclusions with the same facts.

Aspects of cognition like these determine how we go through life, what causes us distress, which goals we pursue and which we abandon, how we respond to failure, how we respond when other people hurt us — and how we respond when we hurt them. Religion derives its power in large part because it shapes these unconscious processes: the frames, metaphors, intuitions, and emotions that operate before we even have a chance at conscious thought.

Some Religious Beliefs and Practices Are More Harmful Than Others

The social sciences offer insight into universal cognitive and social processes that underpin religion broadly, but when it comes to questions of benefit and harm, huge differences emerge. More rigorous research is needed, but mounting case-study data suggest that, when it comes to psychological damage, certain religious beliefs and practices are reliably more toxic than others.

Janet Heimlich is an investigative journalist who has explored religious child maltreatment, which describes abuse and neglect in the service of reli­gious belief. In her book "Breaking Their Will," Heimlich identifies three char­acteristics of religious groups that are particularly prone to harming children. Clinical work with reclaimers, that is, people who are reclaiming their lives and in recovery from toxic religion, suggests that these same qualities put adults at risk, along with a particular set of manipulations found in fundamen­talist Christian churches and biblical literalism.

1.) Authoritarianism, creates a rigid power hierarchy and demands unquestioning obedience. In major theistic religions, this hierarchy has a god or gods at the top, represented by powerful church leaders who have power over male believers, who in turn have power over females and children. Authoritarian Christian sects often teach that “male headship” is God’s will. Parents may go so far as beating or starving their children on the authority of godly leaders. A book titled "To Train Up a Child" by minister Michael Pearl and his wife Debi, has been found in the homes of three Christian adoptive families who have punished their children to death.

2.) Isolation or separatism, is promoted as a means of maintaining spir­itual purity. Evangelical Christians warn against being “unequally yoked” with nonbelievers in marriages and even friendships. New converts often are encouraged to pull away from extended family members and old friends, except when there may be opportunities to convert them. Some churches encourage older members to take in young single adults and house them within a godly context until they find spiritually compatible partners, a process known by cult analysts as “shepherding.” Home schoolers and the Christian equivalent of madrassas cut off chil­dren from outside sources of information, often teaching rote learning and unquestioning obedience rather than broad curiosity.

3.) Fear of sin, hell, a looming “end-times” apocalypse, or amoral hea­thens binds people to the group, which then provides the only safe escape from the horrifying dangers on the outside. In evangelical “hell houses,” Halloween is used as an occasion to terrify children and teens about the tortures that await the damned. In the Left Behind book series, the world degenerates into a bloodbath without the stabi­lizing presence of believers. Since the religious group is the only alter­native to these horrors, anything that threatens the group itself — like criticism, taxation, scientific findings, or civil rights regulations — also becomes a target of fear.

Psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer, author of the now classic "Cults in Our Midst,"spent years analyzing the dynamics of groups that systematically manipulate social and psychological influence, including religious sects and some self-help groups. Any former evangelical will readily see their church in her analysis. Like Heimlich, Singer identified authoritarianism and separatism as core dynamics of groups that cause the most harm. Such groups often claim simply to attract “seekers.” In reality, they engage in sophisticated recruiting activities, and by doing so they are able to draw in people who are often intel­ligent, educated, and otherwise psychologically healthy.

While in the group, members may take on what Singer calls a “pseu-dopersonality.” Upon breaking free, former members may experience dis­orientation, guilt, anxiety, depression, and even panic. But gradually their individuality and their capacity for curiosity and delight re-emerge. Hundreds of testimonials at websites like bear witness to this process, making it clear that it is not just “cults” or fringe groups that use powerful tactics of mind control. In fact, of the thousands of believers currently leaving mainstream Christian churches, many who seek help with recovery wrestle with the same issues as former “cult” members.

Half a century ago, psychiatrist Robert Lifton studied totalistic political regimes that were engaged in the process of thought reform, in particular the communist regimes of China and North Korea. He identified eight psycholog­ical themes associated with destructive mind control. As subsequent scholars have pointed out, many are used by controlling religious sects:

1. Milieu control scripts communications among insiders and discour­ages communication with outsiders.

2. Loaded language creates a form of “group-speak” and constricts thinking. It provides soothing mantras and labels for dismissing criti­cism or doubt.

3. Demands for purity mean that thoughts and behavior get measured against an ideological ideal, the One Right Way.

4. Confession rituals elicit moral emotions like shame and guilt and create a heightened sense that someone is always watching.

5. Mystical manipulation makes people think that new feelings and thoughts have arisen spontaneously. It creates the illusion that members are there by their own choice.

6. Doctrine over person means that people see their own personal history through the lens of ideology. Over time, they may become convinced that they were bad, addicted, or mentally ill prior to joining the group despite evidence to the contrary.

7.  Sacred science is the mechanism by which groups seek to justify and rationalize their belief system by tying it loosely to what is known about the natural world, philosophy, or social science.

8.  Dispensing existence gives the group the power of life and death — or eternal life. Members typically believe that they are a part of a chosen elite while outsiders are lesser beings.

Each of these psychological mechanisms can be applied for either secular or religious purposes. When coupled with a charismatic authority figure, the legitimizing stamp of an ancient text, and socially sanctioned religious struc­ture, their power cannot be overstated.

Bible Belief Creates an Authoritarian, Isolative, Threat-Based Model of Reality

In Bible-believing Christianity, psychological mind-control mechanisms are coupled with beliefs from the Iron Age, including the belief that women and children are possessions of men, that children who are not hit become spoiled, that each of us is born “utterly depraved,” and that God demands unquestioning obedience. In this view, the salvation and righteousness of believers is constantly under threat from outsiders and dark spiritual forces. Consequently, Christians need to separate themselves emotionally, spiritually, and socially from the world. These beliefs are fundamental to the model of reality or “deep frame,” as Lakoff would call it. Small wonder then that many Christians emerge wounded.

It is important to remember that this mindset permeates to a deep subcon­scious level. This is a realm of imagery, symbols, metaphor, emotion, instinct, and primary needs. Nature and nurture merge into a template for viewing the world that then filters every experience. The template selectively allows only the information that confirms the Christian model of reality, creating a subjec­tive sense of its veracity.

On the societal scale, humanity has been going through a massive shift for centuries, transitioning from a supernatural view of a world dominated by forces of good and evil to a natural understanding of the universe. The Bible-based Christian population, however, might be considered a subset of the general population that is still within the old framework, that is, supernaturalism.

Here are some basic assumptions of the supernatural Christian model of reality:

* Humans live in a world of sin and danger dominated by Satan since the Fall of Man.

* Earthly life is taking part in “spiritual warfare,” along with real spiritual entities of good and evil.

* There is a timeline for all existence set by God, starting with Creation and ending with the earth’s destruction and Final Judgment.

* Values, morals, and all things important are eternal and unchanging, authored by God, who answers to no one.

* Humans are sinful by nature, guilty and needing salvation, but lacking any ability to save themselves except to repent and subject their will to God.

* Human life on earth is unimportant in the cosmic scheme. Pleasure is for the afterlife, and the “flesh” is sinful. Life’s purpose is to serve God.

* Ultimately God is in control and will have justice. Humans do not need to understand His mysterious ways, only have faith and not question. Attempts to control are sinful.

This Christian model of reality has built within it mechanisms for its own survival: fear and dependence, circular reasoning, threats for leaving, social supports for staying, and obstructions that prevent outside information from reaching insiders, especially children. Thus, believers not only get hurt, they get stuck.

Excerpted from "Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails," edited by John W. Loftus. Published by Prometheus Books. Copyright © 2014 by John W. Loftus. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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